Democracy put to the test as poll body in Ethiopia hides behind virus

Saturday April 11 2020

Ethiopia's Prime minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a press conference at his office in Addis Ababa, on August 25, 2018. PHOTO | MICHAEL TEWELDE | AFP


The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted Ethiopia’s plans to hold elections on August 29, but the decision to postpone the poll remains controversial.

The Ethiopian Electoral Board said a new schedule will be announced “once the threat of the pandemic is over”.

However, some political commentators say the authorities are exploiting the crisis to delay the polls for as long as possible.

Over 130 opposition groups were due to contest for seats across the country.

Gereziher Haftu Mehari, a lecturer of International Relations and Diplomacy at Mekelle University, says the government’s decision to postpone the election was too early, and indicates Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's intention to tighten his grip on power.

“Postponing an election for political profits has been the instrument of leaders in Africa. That is why it did not take time for the new leadership in Ethiopia to similarly delay the election indefinitely to extend its stay in power,” said Mr Gereziher.


Five-year term

“If the current government stayed in power after its term ends, the democratisation of the country will come under question because the government will be illegal as well as illegitimate,” he added, referring to Ethiopia’s constitution, which states that a government has a five-year term after which it will be in violation of the law.

He said assuming power unconstitutionally could lead to opposition forces rising up against the government to contest for power, resulting in conflict and instability in the country.

Although postponing the election is a test for the ruling Prosperity Party’s (PP) commitment to democracy, scrutiny should be on the process rather than scheduling a calendar as political pluralism is still a challenge.

Rights group have reported intimidation for political dissent, while local opposition forces say the government is hampering freedom of assembly and movement.

They further complain of undue influence, burdensome electoral legal requirements, and little access to media and other resources. Ethnic animosity and instability remain major challenges.

Ethiopia’s aid dependent economy, the confrontation over the Nile water resources, and the coronavirus pandemic are vulnerabilities that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Abiy can exploit to become the next strongman through his established international goodwill.

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to have gained the military upper hand, a worrisome sign of failure of political reconciliation. Oromia region has seen armed civil conflict with prolonged disruption of communication,” said Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst on East Africa.

Military offensive

The administration has engaged in a renewed military offensive against former allies in the Amhara region who brought Mr Abiy to power, and still has unresolved issues with the dominant Tigray regional political force.

“Many opposition figures are aspiring ethnic entrepreneurs unable to mobilise Ethiopians under an elaborate compressive national vision,” said Mr Metta-Alem.

“This has made convergence among the Ethiopian political forces impossible and provides PP with an opportunity to dominate the Ethiopian power structure with no major challenge,” he added.

Financial support

In the absence of comprehensive political, economic, and foreign policies among the opposition, Mr Abiy’s financial liberalisation efforts attracted the economic elite who have given millions of dollars in support of the ruling party.

“Despite initial optimism and opening of the political space, the administration succeeded in consolidating its power instead of implementing genuine and comprehensive reforms,” said Mr Metta-Alem.

“Lack of institutions and Mr Abiy’s increasing proximity to Gulf royals obscures further hopes for democratisation.”

The disregard of the rule of law has led to the loss of dozens of lives of citizens.

“The state failed not only to protect its citizens but also high ranking military generals,” said Mr Gereziher. “The new leadership is suffering from lack of political leadership and lack of knowledge. ”